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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORD OF THE MONTH


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor "Tragic" (1903-4)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken/Günter Herbig
Recorded "live" at the Congresshalle, Saarbrücken on 26th November 1999
BERLIN CLASSICS 0094612BC [75:38]

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In the summer of 1904, when the Sixth Symphony was emerging from Mahlerís composing hut, life was very sweet for the Mahlers and yet Gustav himself was mapping Downfall. Alone among his symphonies this one ends in total negation after a last movement in which Humanity and its very condition seems to be "dramatised" in music. Like all great artists Mahler could see beneath the surface of life and, in spite of his current situation, map the opposite. So the Sixth is one of the great "human condition" works of the twentieth century.

I also find it appropriate that the 1906 premiere took place in Essen, the cradle of German industry. Those march rhythms, mechanistic percussion and harsh-edged contrasts in the first two movements share a kinship with where the work was first heard among the foundries that would build the guns to spill the blood (Bismarckís "blood and iron") in World War One eight years later. So this is a twentieth century symphony breathing as much the same air as Krupp as of Freud. Its concerns are those of our time too because our time was formed as much in the furnaces of Essen as it was in the consulting rooms of Vienna. Indeed the liner notes to this new Herbig recording fascinatingly quote a review of that 1906 premier that actually named the Sixth the "Krupp-Sinfonie".

Yet the Sixth is also the most classically conceived of them all. The only conventional, four movements, one key symphony that Mahler wrote, and that is central to its message too. This fierce classical structure implies the same creative detachment demanded by classical tragedy. I believe that any performance that will make us appreciate its crucial Modernism has to take this into account as well. Strip Mahler of nineteenth century sonorities and folk memories and project, as on a bright stage, a bitter and unforgiving elegy that opens out the tragedy into something universal though held at one remove to reinforce Tragedyís universality and contemporary relevance. Only that way is the ultimate aim of classical tragedy, Purgation or Catharsis, then achieved.

I am aware this is something of a controversial view at odds with those who believe conductors of this work should try to reflect in their interpretation that which they hear in the music rather than err on the side of letting the music largely speak for itself. But Iíll stick to my guns. This work must be framed by a wide degree of creative detachment for it to make its real effect. This way it will retain its power rather than dissipate it in bluster and hamming, as it does under Tennstedt, for example. So for us to get closer to the full implications of the Sixth I believe we must turn to the handful of conductors who take this more circumspect, symphonically-aware approach, essentially the Modernist approach, and I believe Gunter Herbig is among them. As too, in slightly differing degrees, are Jascha Horenstein, Georg Szell (Sony SBK47654), Pierre Boulez (DG 445 835-2), Michael Gielen (Hännsler CD 93.029) whose recording I reviewed recently:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Mar02/Mahler6.htm

and, most notable of all, Thomas Sanderling whose great recording I write about extensively in my survey of Mahler Sixth recordings:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/Mahler/Mahler6.htm

where I nominate it my favourite.


Unlike a lot of issues from Berlin Classics and its parent company Edel this Herbig recording is not a reissue but a "live" performance given in Saarbrücken in 1999. Like many "live" performances gains markedly from the feeling of "concert hall theatre" but with very few of the drawbacks. There are very few mistakes in the playing and the audience is well behaved and attentive. In many ways it reminds me of the recording by Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, also made "live". Herbig shares Szellís essentially dark-grained vision but, most importantly, also his appreciation of how necessary it is to see that darkness against those passages of light that do penetrate. Only by showing us what our universal hero is going to lose can we appreciate the magnitude of that loss when it finally comes. This is most important in the third movement that under both men emerges as a real Andante, not a slightly laboured near Adagio as it does, for example, under Michael Tilson Thomas in his recent San Francisco version (SFS MEDIA 821936-0001-2) which I reviewed recently too:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/May02/Mahler6_MTT.htm

Herbig and Szell allow the music of the Andante to unfold without mannerism. Under Herbig, however, there is an ounce or two more feeling that just evades Szell. Interestingly, both also leave out the first movement exposition repeat and you need to be aware of this when considering Herbigís recording. However, as both recordings were never originally intended for CD release this cannot be so they could be fitted on one disc which is the impression I received from Yoel Leviís version, for example. The liner notes explain that Herbig dropped the repeat because in the first half of this concert he gave "Kindertotenlieder". So maybe it was considered the concert would have been too long with the repeat. Though since the repeat lasts around five minutes that seems rather puzzling. Whatever the reason for leaving the repeat out, though I do believe it should always be played, as with Szell I donít think losing it damages Herbigís performance at all. His view of the first movement is on the grim and determined side and not hearing the repeat adds to the performanceís sense of "getting on with it" which brings its own dividends.

In the first movement the overall approach to tempo seems to me to satisfy admirably Mahlerís apparently ambiguous demands. It possesses both the forward momentum of the "Allegro energico" but enough trenchancy to cope with the "ma non troppo" that in turn allows the German sub-heading "Heftig, aber markig" ("Vehement, but pithy") to really tell. The latter is, of course, more a "mood marking" than a tempo marking and Herbig seems to read Mahlerís intentions with a rare and potent intelligence. The mood is certainly grim and determined, as I said earlier, but there is also a confidence, almost optimism, at the outset of the journey towards tragedy that is compelling. What is more remarkable again is that the constituent parts of the Exposition fit together seamlessly with the "Schwungvoll" marking for the second subject "Alma portrait" weighted just enough to let the passage emerge with nobility but not hold up the progress of the argument. Note here the excellent balancing of the orchestraís sections so that the woodwinds against the brass really sound distinctively edged. Contrapuntal detailing everywhere else is clear too Ė celeste, woodwind alone and percussion taps. Then in the Development Herbigís delivery of the pastoral, cow-bell-accompanied central section is cool and glacial, a ghostly pre-echo of the opening of the fourth movement showing Herbigís grasp of the bigger picture. Note too the plangent woodwinds and the solo horn: expressive but within bounds. This particular passage stays in the mind, which it has to since it is one of the few times in this symphony when real, uncomplicated light is let in on the gloom before the march imperative returns for the Recapitulation. This latter is made more terrible here by the way Herbig makes it seem to "mirror-image" the Exposition. But after that the Coda is optimistic again. Launched from the wonderfully heavy brass comes a message of hope not despair. As you can tell, Herbig in fact covers a long a wide span of feeling.

The scherzo is placed second and the main material has the same energetic thrust of the first movement but with the same accompanying downforce to take in the "Wuchtig" ("Heavy") marking Mahler asks for. Again the balance by Herbig is true. The trio sections with Mahlerís ironic marking "Altvaterisch" (literally "Old father-like" or "old-fashioned") have the kind of mordancy that put me in mind of Otto Klemperer. Even though Klemperer never conducted this work I wonder if these passages would have sounded a little like this if he had. Herbig also attends to the special rhythmic games contained in this movement. All the little jumps and skips Alma Mahler maintained were her small children playing in the sand are delivered well, but Herbig doesnít use too heavy a hand on them, like Levine or Tennstedt do. As always, Herbigís judgement is appropriate. However, this does not stop him making his brass players reach down into the murky depths for those extraordinary passages of Berg-like pre-echo. Thomas Sanderling is even more remarkable in this movement, by the way. Blessed with the finer orchestra he manages to project an even weirder experience overall. But Herbig comes closer to his achievement than many do.

When I recently reviewed Michael Tilson Thomasís San Francisco version I drew attention to his slower-than-usual overall tempo for the Andante. To me it seemed designed to turn this into a conventional slow movement. Inappropriately so, I thought, though I forgave Tilson Thomas, working as he was under the terrible shadow of 9/11 just twenty-four hours previous to the recording. But I am convinced that Mahler had something subtler in mind and Herbig clearly seems to believe this as well because this is one of the quickest accounts on record, almost as fast as Szellís. This music is always just a step or two short of kitsch and it takes a firm hand like Herbigís to stop it descending into it. For an example of how good this movement sounds under Herbig I would point to the central climax which is intensely moving for its simple honesty and complete lack of overheating that makes me admire Herbig even more. Here is a fine example of a conductor who is self-effacing enough and confident enough in the music to let the music make its own effect Ė the art that conceals the art. The cowbells recall the first movement and there is a lovely "outdoor" feel all through. Played like this it all emerges as a simple "song without words" with kinship to the "Kindertotenlieder" and more than enough respite from the fray of the rest to give us pause for reflection before the final drama of the last movement.

Throughout the fourth movement Herbigís grasp of the symphonic logic that he has established from the first bar of the first movement never fails him. Each ushering in by the upward sweep of the violins of the unfolding four-part drama is almost as pointed as it is under Thomas Sanderling. In the extraordinary opening passage the clear and unfussy recording balance allows you to hear everything in proper proportion, as it does too in the passage at 237-270 after the second violin uprush brings in effectively the Development. This recalls near-perfectly the pastoral interlude back in the first movementís Development section, so stressing symphonic logic again but also with the nagging, worrying interpolations of new fourth movement material. This way Herbig also communicates Mahlerian kaleidoscope. The build up to the first hammer, which comes almost straight afterwards, takes place with admirable but unforced inevitability and the hammer itself is well-placed and distinctive. I also liked very much the way Herbig delivers the crucial "whipped" passage (299-457) with the right amount of lift and pressing forward. Tennstedt, for example, weighs this passage down far too much where it is crucial we have the effect that our "hero" is still alive and kicking, still with is head up.

Herbig and the orchestra give a towering performance of the Recapitulation up to where Mahler originally placed a third hammer blow but then withdrew it. There is power, the same clarity of attack in the playing there has been from the start, momentum too, and the realisation that this really is the heroís last throw. The heavy brass and percussion are balanced but do not overwhelm and the ascent to the climactic moment where the third blow used to be is broad and well paced. Following Mahlerís wishes Herbig accepts the Ratz editionís leaving out of the third hammer blow and vindicates that decision. All the damage is done by now and the ultimate, crushing negation is to come in the workís coda. Under Herbig this is veiled and drear, all energy and passion spent. The final percussion crash, followed by a mind-numbing delivery by the timpanist of the last appearance of the fate rhythm and its dumping of us poor listeners into cold oblivion, is absolutely shattering.

For me only Thomas Sanderling surpasses Gunter Herbig in delivering what I believe to be the most appropriate approach to this symphony. His wind lines jut out with a touch more character and there is a degree more of the "Krupp-Sinfonie" about his performance. This may have to do with the fact that in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic he has the better orchestra and a closer-in recording to really bring out the modern feel. The playing of the Saarbrücken Orchestra for Herbig, however, is excellent throughout. Especially remarkable for the fact that, unlike Tilson Thomasís San Francisco recording, this is just a single performance unedited. This radio orchestra may not have the glamour and the corporate panache of Berlin, Vienna, New York (or even San Francisco), but they more than make up for that in their accuracy, commitment and sheer stamina. I do so agree with my colleague Paul Serotsky in his vast review of the new Barshai Shostakovich cycle that also features and excellent German radio orchestra like this when he writes: "I generally find such orchestras far more exciting than any of the pan-global mega-orchestras. For a start, they often retain some local "flavour", and being somehow less exalted and hence nearer the gut-level ground, they seem to be more attuned to what it means to make real music for real people." I thought the Saarbrücken woodwind especially were full of sharp character and Herbigís zeal to make us hear all the complexities of Mahlerís counterpoint at every level is evident throughout. The recorded sound from the Saarbrücken Radio engineers is clear and detailed but there is sufficient air around the instruments to give the impression of being at the performance which fully deserves the enthusiastic applause it receives after a fitting pause.

Thomas Sanderlingís version is quite hard to find these days so Herbigís now takes on an added importance. I know that some will find it performance too austere, astringent, and I suppose it is when compared with the likes of Bernstein, Rattle, Tennstedt and Barbirolli who put more of their own emotional baggage into the score. Many will prefer them but I beg to differ. My advice is to get the Herbig and persevere with it because I am convinced this is the kind of recording that delivers its effect over time. The kind of performance that is more appropriate to what Mahler was trying to communicate in this grand and terrible work. I believe that Günter Herbig has read it dead right.

This is one of the very best recordings of Mahlerís Sixth Symphony available. It is quite stunning in its concentration, totally convincing in its drama and absolutely shattering in its implications. I believe it will stand the test of time.

Tony Duggan

 


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